The Obama administration suffered its first setback yesterday when the House failed to fast-track a bill to postpone the digital transition.
The Communications Act of 1934 provided that the airwaves belong to the people, and that they can be licensed to broadcasters to serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity. Over many generations, the broadcaster have come to believe that they, not the people, own the airwaves.
In the mid 1980s, Motorola campaigned to have some unused television spectrum reassigned to Land Mobile applications. This would have a huge benefit for public service workers because the television frequencies penetrate walls. The National Association of Broadcasters used its political clout to frustrate the Motorola proposal, claiming that the broadcasters needed those vacant channels in order to provide High Definition service. At the time, NAB had no intentions of developing any form of HDTV. This was just a bluff. But it was effective in blocking Motorola. Which is a shame. Fifteen years later, the heroes at the World Trade Center could have used the Motorola gear. If they had had better communications equipment, would there have been more survivors that day? That is a question that the broadcasters were not keen to ask.
Congress and the FCC called the NAB's bluff, and began a program to develop and transition to a new television system, which is replacing the old analog system just as the networks are beginning to fail. Incidentally, much of the technology in the ATSC system was developed by Scientific Atlanta, whose CEO, Donald Rumsfeld, later took the US into a war in Iraq under false pretenses.
Unless the House moves quickly, the NTSC system will be turned off for most of the country next month. This will have no impact on people who receive their programming via DSL, cable, or satellite. It will have a profound impact on people who get their programming over the air. The old analog sets will be unable to receive the new digital signals. All they will see is static. There are converter boxes available, but they will be ineffective in areas of poor reception. The analog switchoff will have its biggest impact on poor people and old people, who have become the key demographics for the broadcasters since the rest of us have already transitioned away from broadcast in favor of other sources.The Digital Transition [2004 - 2007]